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How Do We Make 100% College Acceptance the Norm?

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    April Hattori

NEW YORK -- January 7, 2015 -- Amid the news of last month's "College March" – an annual tradition in which high school seniors drop their college applications in the mail – there is a growing movement of educators who are pushing their schools to achieve 100% college acceptance for their students, no matter their family background.

Expeditionary Learning (EL) – the K-12 education nonprofit – is leading the charge to this goal with its sister organization NYC Outward Bound Schools and EL partner schools around the country. Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (which originated the College March in 2011), Springfield Renaissance School in Massachusetts, and Capital City Public Charter School in D.C., were three of the 14 EL schools nationally that celebrated the College March, led by NYC Outward Bound Schools, in December – attracting a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama. These schools and others in the Expeditionary Learning network are being held up as examples of what happens when a school sets high standards for its students: the students meet, and often exceed, these expectations.

Ever since the Springfield Renaissance School opened in 2006, 100% of its students have been accepted into college. All students know, from the time they are sixth graders entering the school, that they are on the path to college. This is in a district where only half of students even graduate from high school.

"For schools that are primarily in underserved urban districts, college access is a civil rights issue," says Libby Woodfin of Expeditionary Learning. "Rather than thinking college is only for their wealthier peers, students in college-bound schools such as Renaissance know that college is for them too."

In a recent blog for Education Week, Woodfin and Deidre Cuffee-Gray, chair of the guidance and counseling department at Renaissance, explain the different thinking going on at the school: "Being college-bound is a different mindset. It impels students to develop intellectual courage – and to push and support each other because they are all working toward the same goal of applying to and getting accepted into college."

But courage is needed as much on the part of educators, they say – not just the students. What does it take for schools and teachers to make 100% college acceptance the norm? Woodfin and Cuffee-Gray explain what Renaissance does differently – and how other schools can do the same:

  1. Make it the mission. At Renaissance, every student – no exceptions – is considered "college bound," even if they don't actually attend college (but almost all of them do). The process of applying and getting accepted is seen as valuable in and of itself, and gives students a new academic mindset.
  2. Support students to become leaders of their own learning. Students presenting portfolios of their work before faculty, peers, and family members and student-led family conferences help students become more accountable for their own growth.
  3. Push and support students to take academic risks. In most schools, counselors have to argue with students not to drop certain classes, knowing that these gaps will preclude students from even applying to many colleges. At Renaissance, school policies require students to take four years of each core academic class, including foreign language – taking "negotiations" off the table and making its students' transcripts attractive to college admissions officers.
  4. Ensure that every part of the curriculum builds the skills students will need in college. Because of the school's college-bound mission, all Renaissance teachers can focus on teaching skills students will need in college, including analyzing conflicting explanations of phenomena, supporting arguments with evidence, solving complex problems that have no obvious answer, and the like.
  5. Make the application process part of the curriculum. At Renaissance, senior English teachers make the application essay central to their courses, further integrating the college application process into the students' lives. College awareness is an explicit part of the curriculum for student advisory groups starting in sixth grade.
  6. Make "college knowledge" everyone's business. Most students at Renaissance will be first-generation college students, so the school teaches students everything from admissions requirements and the cost of college to insights about college culture and relations with professors.

Say Woodfin and Cuffee-Gray, "We have to have the courage as educators to help students get to college and instill in them a belief that they belong there. This is what happens when a high school makes college its mission."